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The Aeolian harp was first described in poetry in 1748, in James Thomson’s Castle of Indolence, where it is said to have an almost magical effect on the human body and mind.[1] The sounds of the harp’s strings, blown by the wind, “Lulled the weak bosom, and induced ease. [...] Here soothed the pensive melancholy mind” (266). By the end of the century the harp had its dedicatory poems and appreciative descriptions in numerous prose works, from novels to scientific analyses of acoustics[2], and had become renowned not only as an instrument that influences body and mind, as in Thomson’s poem, but as a way of explaining their workings.

This article examines the use of the Aeolian harp as a model for human nerves, corresponding with a shift in the understanding of the physical basis of human sensitivity. By the end of the eighteenth century a new understanding of the nerves as solid, like musical strings, began to replace the earlier idea that nerves are hollow, and that animal spirits flow through them (superfine fluids, almost immaterial, were thought to flow between soul and body). Vibrations in solid nerves delivered sensations to the brain, according to an increasing number of philosophers, anatomists, neurologists and medical practitioners like David Hartley in Observations on Man (first published in 1749). Followers of this theory began to see the Aeolian harp, a newly popular technology which turned vibrations of air into sound, as a model for a human mind/body conceived as a machine for translating sensory vibrations into consciousness. It became an image of the doctrine of association. The Aeolian harp did more, though, than provide an image of passively vibrating ‘nerve-strings’: it was creative as well as sensitive, transforming the force of the wind into harmonious sounds. Focusing initially on Coleridge’s “The Aeolian Harp” (first composed in 1795), I track how the harp as a metaphor for the sensitive and imaginative, creative poet, corresponds with Hartley’s materialist account of both perception and creativity, of receptive and responsive motions, or ‘incoming’ and ‘outgoing’ vibrations. Hartley claimed that vibrations travel along the “motory” as well as “sensory” nerves, leading to muscular action, whether that is walking, writing, or reciting poetry. The harmonious vibrations of “The Aeolian Harp,” however, are subsequently transformed into the screaming noises of “Dejection: An Ode” (1802). As medical writers increasingly viewed nervous vibrations as a cause of pain and illness, sensitivity and harmony began in literary descriptions around the turn of the century to give way to trembling and convulsions, the vibratory movements of nervousness and suffering. But some medical writers also saw violent vibrations, at least within certain limits, as a powerful, even life-giving stimulus. Vibration, in other words, could be experienced as both painful and pleasurable, and as a dangerous and healing force.

Many historians and critics have looked at theories of mind developed by the “sensualist philosophers” who conceived of it as a mechanical, passive receiver of sense data (for a recent example see Jütte 126-133). More specifically, critics have frequently compared the mechanism of the harp to the passive mind as conceived by Hartley, and as depicted in Coleridge’s poetry prior to his maturer engagement with idealist philosophy (see, for example, Ashton 499-500), while I, by contrast, will develop a far more detailed comparison between physiological and medical theories – focusing initially on Hartley’s – and poetic descriptions of the harp. The extent of Hartley’s influence on Coleridge has been a subject of quite lengthy debate, but the theory of associationism which critics usually discussed was a disembodied version.[3] As Alan Richardson points out, in a study of “neural Romanticism”, analyses of the Romantic mind tended to ignore the brain, while historians of neurology and psychology viewed this period as crucial for the emergence of theories and discoveries concerning the brain and nervous system—increasingly viewed as the seat of consciousness (1-2). Critics have recently intensified their focus on the body in Romanticism, previously often overlooked in the canonical understanding that Romantic poetry sought, through the creative power of the mind – of thought, memory, imagination – to transcend the material body and world, to reach an ideal or spiritual realm.[4] My aim here is thus to identify a materialist, vibratory undercurrent through neurological and medical theories and poetry of the era. By viewing the Romantic mind as embodied I am by now predictably engaging with Jonathan Crary’s observations about the role of the body in perception, where he argues that the empirical sciences and new technologies between 1810 and 1840 “severed” sensory experience from any direct relation to an external world. Vision, the sense on which Crary tends to focus, was “relocated in the human body”, and thus “knowledge was accumulated about the constitutive role of the body in the apprehension of a visible world” (Crary, Techniques 16). For Crary, there is a sharp break between classical models of vision and the “subjective vision” developed after 1810, when sensations were no longer seen to originate in the external world but in the body. While Crary focuses on optical instruments like the camera obscura and magic lantern, the Aeolian harp provides an earlier, acoustic model of embodied consciousness, which could serve as a bridge between the “classical” and “modern” accounts of sensitivity. This model presents sensations as originating in both an external stimulus and the body, especially the nervous system.

“The Aeolian Harp” and “Dejection: An Ode” draw on the physiology of vibrations and sensations set out in Observations on Man, though they may also be seen to question it. It was just when Coleridge was most avowedly a Hartleyan that he wrote “The Aeolian Harp,” naming his son Hartley in 1796 (as noted in Coleridge, Biographia 250). It was only later that Coleridge’s extensive criticism of Hartley appeared in Biographia Literaria (1817), in which he argued that associationism is unable to account for active and creative mental faculties such as will and imagination, as it renders the mind passive and mechanical, determined by the “despotism of outward impressions” (215). Coleridge’s denunciations have often been taken to support the idea of Hartley’s theory as a mechanical and sterile system, utterly incompatible with the creative mind of Romanticism. Katherine Wheeler has argued that Coleridge was doubting Hartley’s system even before “The Aeolian Harp” was published, although the image of the harp in this poem is said to be “expressive of the mechanism, determinism, and necessity involved in Associationism” (3). She contrasts this image with the organicism that came to dominate Coleridge’s later poems, which “describe the mind as active and originating instead of passive and receiving influences ready-made from the external world” (3). There is much debate regarding Hartley’s influence, which others have explored in more depth with respect to Coleridge’s ambivalence, for example (Vallins; McFarland 166-77). Coleridge certainly became very critical of Hartley, but never fully completed the overthrow of associationism in 1801, according to Jerome Christensen, who argues that Coleridge continued to interpret and engage with Hartley’s work for longer than is generally acknowledged. Coleridge became an influential critic of associationism and supporter of Kantian philosophy, but the physiological approach to psychology was by no means abandoned, as observed by both Richardson and Rick Rylance in his history of Victorian psychology.[5] Writers such as George Henry Lewes and John Stuart Mill, Rylance notes, “championed Hartley as a pioneer of the physiological psychology of the 1860s and 1870s” (84).

I. Nerves vibrate, like strings

“The doctrine of vibrations” as set out in Hartley’s Observations on Man asserts that vibrations in the nerves transmit sensations. Sensations generate ideas, which in turn generate thought and feeling, memory and other aspects of mental life. “The doctrine of association” explains how increasingly complex ideas are built up from sensations by means of association, a process through which ideas are combined. As many historians have observed, Hartley’s work was probably the first comprehensive attempt to integrate associationist philosophy with Newtonian physics, to ground mental processes in the physical. Drawing on the work of John Locke and others who developed associationist theories, Hartley sought to ground philosophy of mind in corporeal foundations: the anatomy and motions of the nerves and brain.[6]

Drawing on Newton’s Principia and the “Queries” to Opticks, Hartley proposed that “motions” from the external world cause vibrations to run along the “medullary substance” of the nerves, which consists of particles small enough to transmit rather than interrupt the vibrations, the pores or spaces between which are filled with even smaller, “infinitesimal” particles of ether. This understanding of the nerves differed from the alternative theory that the nerves are hollow, through which animal spirits flow. Hartley writes that “the nerves are rather solid capillaments, according to Sir Isaac Newton, than small tubuli, according to Boerhaave” (17). While earlier philosophers including Descartes and Malebranche had claimed that animal spirits flow in a vibratory or wave-like manner, for Hartley vibration itself is transmitted along the nerves. Rather than a stream of spirits running through the tubular nerves it is solely the motion that is transmitted, triggering further vibrations (“vibratiuncles”) in the medullary substance of the brain.

By the end of the eighteenth century the idea that nerves are hollow was giving way to the understanding that nerves are solid, more like musical strings than tubes. Hartley’s work can be seen as an early and speculative line of investigation in this area. The debate around whether nerves are string-like or tubular is discussed in many historical accounts of neurology, which generally agree that around the turn of the century anatomical discoveries with microscopes began to establish the solidity of the nerves. Edwin Clarke for example shows that the idea of tubular nerves “endured virtually intact throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” but not into the nineteenth. He claims that it was only at the turn of the eighteenth century that the nerve fibre began to be recognized (123-4).[7] Beyond the scientific debate, however, the increasing use in the eighteenth century of musical strings as an image of nerves conveyed the idea of their solidity, and capacity to vibrate, to a wider public.

Hartley’s own response to the idea that nerves are like strings was to distinguish between them because vibrations travel along the nerves whereas in the case of strings it is whole string itself that vibrates. He writes that the idea that “the nerves themselves should vibrate like musical strings, is highly absurd” (11-12). However, he did use strings elsewhere as an explanatory model, for example, to argue that the nerves similarly return to their former condition after vibrating, rather than being permanently altered (62). He also used sound to explain the vibratory activity of other phenomena. As sonorous or “gross vibrations” are more evidently vibratory than the “subtle” etherial vibrations, sound is used as a model to explain light and electricity, for example, as well as nerve impulses, while electricity vibrating along hempen strings is used to explain the sensory function of the nerves (26-7, 231-2, 28 & 88). Later in the century, in his popularized edition of Hartley’s theory, Joseph Priestley developed an explanation of vibrating nerves in terms of the sympathetic vibration of strings:

For what is more natural than to imagine that the tremulous motion of the particles of the air, in which sound consists, must, since it acts by successive pulses, communicate a tremulous motion to the particles of the auditory nerve, and that the same tremulous motion is propagated to the brain, and diffused into it? It is not necessary to suppose that the vibrations of the particles of the air, and those of the particles of the nerves, are isochronous, since even the vibration of a musical string will affect another, an octave above, or an octave below it.

Priestley, Hartley’s Theory xii

For this introductory essay to Hartley’s Theory of the Human Mind, on the Principle of the Association of Ideas, entitled “A general view of the doctrine of vibrations,” Priestley omitted much of the detail of the doctrine as it was considered outdated in the light of new understandings about electricity, and in order to present a more accessible version, as Hartley’s work was not widely read. The doctrine of vibrations is omitted altogether from the main text, which is instead an attempt to clearly explain the doctrine of association for a wider public.[8] Whether or not Hartley himself approved of the analogy, his work appears to have supported the idea of string-like nerves for many people without direct access to his original Observations. Robert Miles suggests this in an account of how responses to popular forms of Gothic literature were explained in terms of eighteenth-century associationism, which “increasingly relied on the figuration of the mind as a kind of vibrating machine, where the ‘nerves’ stood as the individual strings” (49). The reader of popular novels, Miles observes, was described as “a detached observer waiting for her receptive mechanism – her ‘nerves’ – to be played upon” (51). For the critic Nathaniel Drake for example, “sublime events ‘wrought up’ in a masterly manner, cause every nerve to vibrate ‘with pity and terror’” (49[9]).

Hartley’s Observations contributed at least indirectly to the idea of the self as a passive, sensitive, and automatic kind of mechanism in the eighteenth century, as Miles has suggested. Toward the end of the century, as I will next show, the strings of the aeolian harp became such a model of sensitivity, for poets as well as for readers and listeners.

II. Sensitivities

What distinguishes the Aeolian harp from other musical instruments is that nobody plays it. Most people who write about the instrument observe that it is unique in its capacity to respond to nature, to be moved by the wind, to play “Nature’s Music” (Bloomfield) (though there are one or two other exceptions, like wind-chimes). Thomas Hankins and Robert Silverman have studied a range of instruments invented by natural philosophers in the seventeenth century, which were later taken up in art and popular culture, among which the Aeolian harp was distinctive: “It was sensitive—listening and responding to nature, rather than invading and dissecting nature. Its appeal was quasi-magical. Its music brought to the senses a wonder or harmony of nature that was not otherwise perceived” (110). The magic of the harp was in its capacity to be both sensitive and sonorous, to hear and be heard. Its very sensitivity, or its nerve-strings, it seems, yields the sounds to which hearers are sensitive.

The vibrating strings of the Aeolian harp brought nature’s music to the senses, and provided a model of sensitivity. In the early lines of Coleridge’s “The Aeolian Harp” the poet’s sensitivity to the sounds of the harp prefigures the lines in which he becomes the harp itself. This sensitivity is multisensory. Vibration moves through all matter, exciting every sense. As well as sound, the first verse of the poem describes senses of touch, sight, smell, and possibly taste. Sara’s “soft cheek” reclines on the poet’s arm, while it is “sweet” to sit beside their home, to see flowers, clouds, and a star, the colour white, shapes, and light, to inhale the “scents” of the bean-field, and to hear the “stilly murmur” of the sea (27-8, lines 1-11). The sound of the sea waves seems then to flow into the “surges” that “sink and rise,” as if figuring the fluidity of the “soft floating” sound of the harp (28, lines 19-20). While water waves provide a way of visualising the vibratory nature of sound, another image is then found in the motion of birds:

 Melodies round honey-dropping flowers,

Footless and wild, like birds of Paradise,

Nor pause, nor perch, hovering on untamed wing!

28, lines 23-25

Senses are compounded, the fluidity of sound becoming feathery, an almost palpable, visible thing. The vibrations of sound accelerate as we progress from the gentle “sink and rise” of the waves to the rapid motion of hovering, pauseless, untamed wings. As Timothy Morton has observed, the descriptions of ambient sounds encourage us to hear the environment as a kind of music, along with the sounds of the harp, which he calls an “environmental instrument” as it is seen to respond directly to nature. Morton briefly notes that the nervous organism as conceived in this period was comparable to the harp, before moving on to consider it as a model for human response to the environment in light of current ecological concerns (310-335). Hearing is only one way of sensing the environment, though, as I have shown, while the surrounding sounds become almost an environment in themselves, the poet being immersed in the sea waves, which then take on another texture, of the softness of feathers, recalling Sarah’s “soft cheek” in the opening line, and how the harp is “caressed” by the breeze which generates the very sounds which in turn, as feathery, could lightly caress.

Sight and sound, especially, become increasingly interchangeable, as the light which earlier in the poem has shifted from the sun behind clouds to the star of eve then appears to become itself sonorous: “A light in sound, a sound-like power in light” (28, line 28). The sources of this idea of light in sound and sound in light, which Coleridge added to the poem in 1817, have previously been identified as the sixteenth-century mystic Jacob Boehme and Friedrich Schelling’s theories of gravitation[10], but beyond these specific references the analogy between sound and light was frequently drawn by natural philosophers in the seventeenth century and Hartley and others in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the seventeenth century the harp’s inventor Athanasius Kircher is thought to have influenced Isaac Newton with regard to his analogy between tones and colours (Erhardt-Sietbold 347-348). Newton’s proposition that “different rays excite vibrations of different bignesses, as different vibrations of the air excite different sounds” was later taken up by Hartley and by Priestley in his edition of Hartley’s work and in The History and Present State of Discoveries Relating to Vision, Light and Colours.[11] The idea of vibratory light appears again in Priestley’s Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air where wave motions provide an analogy for knowledge, “which, like the progress of a wave of the sea, of sound, or of light from the sun, extends itself not this way only, but in all directions” (Priestley, Experiments xxiii).

Vibrations in the nerves are the cause of all sensations which, by means of association, produce thought, or, in Hartley’s words, both “ideas of sensation” and “intellectual ideas,” or “simple” and “complex ideas” (56-114). In this way it seems that the waves of the sea, fluttering of birds, sound and light in “The Aeolian Harp” vibrate the nerves or strings of the sensitive, responsive poet, resulting in mental activity: “Rhythm in all thought” (28, line 29). Like the sound in light, the rhythm in thought is vibratory. This seems to be a crystallisation of Hartley’s speculations that ideas, as well as sensations, are caused by vibrations. He writes, for example:

Since therefore sensations are conveyed to the mind, by the efficiency of corporeal causes upon the medullary substance, as is acknowledged by all physiologists and physicians, it seems to me, that the powers of generating ideas, and raising them by association, must also arise from corporeal causes. [...] And as a vibratory motion is more suitable to the nature of sensation than any other species of motion, so does it seem also more suitable to the powers of generating ideas, and raising them by association.

Hartley, Observations on Man 72

“Rhythm in all thought,” however, seems to take Hartley’s theory further, suggesting not only that vibration causes thought, but that it is in thought, or even is thought. This sense of thought as vibration would correspond with Coleridge’s account of thought in his letter to Southey in December 1794, where he wrote that “I am a compleat Necessitarian—and understand the subject well almost as Hartley himself—but I go further than Hartley and believe in the corporeality of thought—namely, that it is motion—” (137). With this motion in mind, in “The Aeolian Harp” the distinction between subject and object, between the poet and the vibratory world of nature in which he is situated, to which he is sensitive, begins to fade. The sensitive person seems to become what he is sensitive to, vibration echoing through the physics of thought.

The rhythmic motion of light is again followed by thought, and phantasies, in the following verse:

The sunbeams dance, like diamonds, on the main,

And tranquil muse upon tranquility;

Full many a thought uncalled and undetained,

And many idle flitting phantasies,

Traverse my indolent and passive brain,

As wild and various as the random gales

That swell and flutter on this subject lute!

28, lines 37-43

A sense of rhythm is created through rhyme, repetition, and alliteration, suggesting that the sound of the poem is the sound of the rhythm of thought itself. “Full many a thought” and “many idle flitting phantasies” are generated in the poet by the wind, much as sound is generated by the gales that “flutter”, like the “footless” birds earlier in the poem, on the “subject lute” (Coleridge used the word “lute” and “harp” interchangeably). George Dekker, who argues that the preoccupations of the “Age of Sensibility” continued to function in Coleridge’s work, writes that the harp in this poem is “a metaphor for passive reception of the influxes of thought, feeling and sensation” (114). But while most analyses of this poem agree that the harp is passive, this instrument is at the same time active in that it is not only sensitive but sonorous, it hears and is heard, receives and transmits. For the opposition between passivity and activity, M. H. Abrams has examined the well-known images of the mirror and lamp, using the shift from eighteenth-century associationism to Kantian idealism to explain how the neoclassical ideal of poetry as a reflection or imitation of the natural world was replaced by the Romantic emphasis on the creative imagination and spontaneity of the poet himself. For the projection rather than reception of light, the lamp, in contrast to the mirror, is an image for the mind as “active rather than inertly receptive, and as contributing to the world in the very process of perception” (Abrams, The Mirror 58). The use of the Aeolian harp as an analogue for the mind is understood to derive from Coleridge’s early interest in associationism, from which he turned in the nineteenth century toward Kant, but unlike the visual images of the mirror and lamp the strings of the harp are both passive and active, receptive and responsive, not just reflecting but harmonising the forces of nature which they transmit, or ‘hear-speak,’ like nerves that are at the same time vocal cords. As Jonathan Crary has observed, “subjective vision” has long been explored in Romantic criticism. Abrams in particular has mapped out the shift “from conceptions of imitation to ones of expression, from metaphor of the mirror to that of the lamp” (Techniques 9). Crary goes on to add, however, that such explanations centre around the idea of “a vision or perception that was somehow unique to artists and poets, that was distinct from a vision shaped by empiricist or positivist ideas and practices” (9). The connections between the harp and Hartley’s theory (which will be further developed here shortly) demonstrate that the responsive poet is not physiologically unique, and that the nineteenth-century shift from passive “imitation” to creative “expression” is less clear cut than Abrams and Crary consider, as the pre-Kantian harp both receives and harmonises, hears and speaks.

III. Mechanics of voice

The harp becomes a metaphor for the poet, and the sound of the harp for poetry, which corresponds with Hartley’s account both of receptive hearing and responsive motions, or ‘incoming’ and ‘outgoing’ vibrations. The first sections of Observations on Man explain how vibrations transmit sensations and how sensations develop into ideas, and later sections explain how people learn to do things like walk and speak a language. The arguments of the first two sections, “which prove the performance of sensation and intellectual perception by means of vibrations of the small medullary particles,” lead to the claim that “muscular motion is performed by vibrations also,” as vibrations travel along both sensory and motory nerves: “Vibrations descend along the motory nerves, i.e. the nerves which go to the muscles, in some such manner as sound runs along the surfaces of rivers, or an electrical virtue along hempen strings” (86 & 88). These vibrations underlie two sorts of muscular motion: “automatic,” which includes the beating of the heart, respiration, and the crying of new-born children, and “voluntary,” which includes speaking, writing, and playing a musical instrument, activities which in the first place have to be learnt, but which may then be converted into “secondarily automatic motion” (103-9). To learn to speak, for example, children must form associations between the sounds they hear and the creation of sounds, between “impressions made on the ear” and “actions of the organs of speech,” and between sounds and other things in the world including objects and actions (106-107 & 268-277). After much repetition and practice, speech finally becomes an automatic action, as does playing a musical instrument. Automatic motions, according to Hartley, “of which the mind is scarce conscious, and which follow mechanically, as it were, some precedent diminutive sensation, idea, or motion, and without any effort of the mind, are rather to be ascribed to the body than the mind” (104). The Aeolian harp provides an image of this mechanically automatic body, which both receives and transmits vibrations. Much as sound provides the model for nerve impulses earlier in Observations on Man, as sound is more evidently vibratory than the etherial motions, the speaking body seems to make audible or to amplify the vibrations of the “motory nerves,” while it shapes them into words. Several times in Observations speaking is described as primary and embodied, which as such is distinctively vibratory:

Since not only the parts about the throat, but those of the mouth, cheeks, and even of the whole body, especially of the bones, vibrate in speaking, the figure of the vibrations impressed upon the air by the human voice will be different from that of the vibrations proceeding from a violin, flute, &c. provided the distance be not too great.


Among the vibrations received by humans, then, are those produced by other humans, “by the human voice.” In the discussion of poetry, Hartley suggests that the voice has a special kind of effect on its hearers, unlike the written word: “Verses well pronounced affect us much more, than when they merely pass over the eye, from the imitation of the affections and passions represented, by the human voice” (431).

Like Hartley, and like many Romantic and other poets, Coleridge valued the orality of poetry over its written form.[12] Poetry was the art of the speaking body. In Biographia Literaria he distinguished between the publication and recitation of poetry because the latter offers a certain stage presence in which the sound of the voice plays a part. He referred to “the sympathy of feeling” produced in an audience by the recitation of a poem, which can be seen as a form of “animal magnetism, in which the enkindling reciter, by perpetual comment of looks and tones, lends his own will and apprehensive faculty to his auditors” (Coleridge, Biographia 476-7). Animal magnetism was a topic of general interest in the Romantic period, believed to allow the magnetizer to influence the body and mind of his patient. Founded in the eighteenth century by Franz Anton Mesmer, this practice was rooted in the theory that a vital electrical energy flowed through the nerves, transmitting the will from the brain to the limbs. Mesmer claimed that he could channel this energy with healing effects on his patients, transmitting it from his own body to others’, which according to contemporary reports often induced trance-like states or convulsive fits, which Mesmer saw as healing “crises”. Though theories of magnetism usually assumed the nervous energy to be a fluid, there are some similarities between Hartley’s ideas and those of physicians. For one thing, the energy was often described as travelling in a vibratory manner (see Fulford 57-78). Further, both Hartley and Mesmer built on Newton’s hypothesis that ether pervaded outer spaces as well as the nerves in the body. This ether, as Tim Fulford puts it, “explained action at a distance – gave a material medium for the influence of one body on another across space” (63). A magnetist might thus transmit energy from his body to another’s, and, further, Mesmer described how planets could influence the body, which he conceived of as sonorous and vibratory, writing of “the ineffable effect of UNIVERSAL GRAVITATION by which our bodies are harmonized, not in a uniform and monotonous manner, but as a musical instrument furnished with several strings, the exact tone resonates which is in unison with a given tone” (19). Fulford explores how ideas of mesmerism were applied widely, far beyond the relationship between the physician and his patient, as a way of explaining the power not only of the speaking poet, but also of politicians, for example, including the Prime Minister William Pitt, who Coleridge saw as having a dangerous influence over the ignorant and superstitious English population. On the one hand Mesmer’s theory was blamed for influencing the masses and infecting them with fanatical, irrational beliefs; on the other, it held out the promise of a more harmonious, united society, in sympathy with each other through the intimate connections in etherial space.

To describe the speaking poet (or politician, or whoever) as a magnetist, then, was to ascribe to him an intense power over the nerves/strings of his audience (whether for good or ill). The poet should be a sensitive instrument, but his listeners, too, were expected to be sensitive, like the mesmerist’s patient, or Miles’s reader of Gothic novels “waiting for her receptive mechanism – her ‘nerves’ – to be played upon.” Vibration and related sonorous terms, like reverberation, were frequently used by eighteenth and nineteenth-century literary critics, such as Josiah Conder who argued that “the only converse to be held with a poet’s mind is that of sympathy. The feelings of the reader must be strung to a pitch in unison with those of the poet himself, or they will not vibrate in reply” (Conder 33; see also McCarthy 1997). Such vibration will be at its most intense when the transmission takes place directly between human bodies. Poetry spoken aloud vibrates between the bodies of the poet and the listener. It may even vibrate between a multitude of bodies.

“The Aeolian Harp” moves from individual experience, from the sensitivity of the poet to sound and light and so on, toward communication and a sense of universal harmony. According to Hartley, as we have seen, sensations develop into ideas and thought, and voluntary actions develop into automatic or unconscious actions. Observations on Man moves on from the sense of hearing to speaking, while the strings of the harp provide an image of hearing that is speaking, of nerves that are vocal cords, collapsing the distinction between inner and outer, subject and object, self and other, producing a kind of universal communicativeness:

 And what if all of animated nature

Be but organic harps diversely framed,

That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps

Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,

At once the Soul of each, and God of All?

28-9, lines 44-48

Once again, the nervous vibrations of Hartleyan doctrine seem to echo through the poem, through the sonorous thought of the harps as they “tremble into thought.” These lines are among the most heavily interpreted in English poetry, and while they are usually thought to reflect Coleridge’s pantheist speculations they are also compatible with Hartley’s religious system (see for example McFarland). The second volume of Observations develops the argument that as sensations become thought, and actions become mechanical, the mind is freed from direct and material concerns, so that experience leads us toward the immaterial and spiritual, toward God. Nature is divinely designed so that humans continue to improve and find happiness.[13] But while the ideal relation between each Soul and God as described in “The Aeolian Harp” is harmonious – the self vibrates in sympathy with the universe – this can also be seen as a fragile, precarious state, dependent on an ‘attuned’ nervous system. Universal communicativeness might be a vision of paradise, but it is also a vision of the dissolution of the self.

In the nineteenth century vibration continued to be considered the source of sensations, of ideas and thought, and poetry, but, as medical science increasingly presented nervous vibrations as a cause of pain and illness, the harmony of the harp gives way to pain and the screaming noises of “Dejection.”

IV. Suffering Noises

In “Dejection,” Coleridge again personifies the Aeolian harp. The wind retains its power over the nerves of the sensitive self, though it treats them differently from the Godly breeze in the earlier poem. In “The Aeolian Harp” the harp is “caressed” by the gentle wind, and is like “some coy maid half-yielding to her lover” (14-15). It responds to the wind’s touch with “sweet upbraiding,” “delicious surges” (16, 19). In “Dejection,” instead of pleasurable sensations and sounds, there is

 The dull sobbing draft, that moans and rakes

Upon the strings of this Aeolian lute,

Which better far were mute.

114, lines 6-8

The wind in this opening verse seems to drag and scrape the strings of the harp, and its “dull sobbing” to echo the poet’s own sense of “dull pain.” The verse ends with the poet’s desire for, or feeling of a need to feel, the sounds of a storm to “startle this dull pain, and make it move and live!” (114, line 20).

To attempt an understanding of why Coleridge would have wanted a storm to intensify his pain, in this section I will firstly consider Hartley’s account of painful sensations and vibrations as a materialist precursor to Edmund Burke’s theory of the sublime. Burke claimed that the sublime – with its capacity to vibrate or shake the body – could be a kind of medical treatment for disordered nervous systems. Burke and other medical writers also perceived violent vibrations, at least beyond certain limits, as potentially dangerous, however. I will explore the sublime as both medicinal and pathological, and will go on to further develop an understanding of the harp in Coleridge’s poetry in the context of physiological and medical theories of the time.

As well as sensations of sounds, colours, feathers and so on, “pleasures and pains” are related to the doctrine of vibrations. “The most vigorous of our sensations,” Hartley explained, “are termed sensible pleasures and pains” (34). He proposed that pleasure and pain are not essentially different, that they are not different qualities but quantities, existing on a continuum or single scale: “The doctrine of vibrations seems to require, that each pain should differ from the corresponding and opposite pleasure, not in kind, but in degree only; i.e. that pain should be nothing more than pleasure itself, carried beyond a due limit” (35). According to this conceptualization, then, pain is in a sense an excess of pleasure. It is at least an intensification of sensation, which generates ideas, phantasies, feelings, and poetry.

Pain, then, may counteract the deficiency of sensation, and corresponding lack of poetic creativity or expression, experienced by the poet in his state of dejection. He suffers

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,

A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,

Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,

In word, or sigh, or tear.

114, lines 21-24

In a similar way to Hartley, Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) argued that “pain is stronger in its operation than pleasure,” and that “pain can be a cause of delight” (86 & 164). Anything that produced a sense of the infinite and powerful could have the painful and terrifying effects of the sublime, including aspects of nature such as thunder, earthquakes, and oceans, while the ultimate sublime object was God. In an encounter with the sublime the individual, feeling threatened by his own smallness and mortality, his own obliteration, could experience a terrifying thrill, a form of delight. Hartley’s account of the pleasures to be gained from beautiful things in the natural world similarly indicates that the vastness of nature, as opposed to “pleasant tastes, and smells, and the fine colours of fruits and flowers, the melodies of birds,” and so on, may be experienced as both horrifying and pleasurable:

If there be a precipice, a cataract, a mountain of snow, &c. in one part of the scene, the nascent ideas of fear and horror magnify and enliven all the other ideas, and by degrees pass into pleasures, by suggesting the security from pain.

In like manner the grandeur of some scenes, and the novelty of others, by exciting surprize and wonder, i. e. by making a great difference in the preceding and subsequent states of mind, so as to border upon, or even enter the limits of pain, may greatly enhance the pleasure.


Burke went further than Hartley, however, in his claim that the sublime can provide a beneficial kind of exercise for the nervous system. Too much rest and inactivity, according to Burke, can produce a state in which the nerves are liable to “horrid convulsions,” a state which results in “dejection, despair, and often self-murder” (164). The sublime may on the one hand be detrimental to health, and on the other beneficial to the nervous and muscular tissues. The sublime can restore the health of the nervous system, as well as being experienced as delightful, “If the pain and terror are so modified as not to be actually noxious.” Though the therapeutic quality of the sublime derives in part from its ability to unblock the nerves, thereby aiding the flow of animal spirits, according to the earlier understanding of nervous activity, its vibratory nature makes it adaptable to the idea of string-like nerves. In cases of dejection and melancholy the nerves should be vigorously vibrated, or, in Burke’s words, “shaken and worked to a proper degree” (165).

Coleridge, who notoriously suffered from a range of medical complaints, which he considered at least in part to derive from his disordered nervous system, tried various forms of treatment, including “horse-exercise” and opium, and was interested, I will argue, in the therapeutic effects of the sublime. In Coleridge and the Doctors Neil Vickers shows that Coleridge had a good understanding of the medical systems of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which had seen the rise of the view that disease is caused by a disorderly or ‘untuned’ nervous system. Many doctors, including Albrecht von Haller, John Brown, and Coleridge’s own physician Thomas Beddoes, held that stimulation of the nerves could be a beneficial treatment, prescribing exercises such as horse-riding and walking, exposure to extreme temperatures, alcohol and opiates, oxygen, and “the exciting passions of the mind” (Vickers 31). The sublime, with its capacity to excite terror, could be seen as a most powerful stimulant, along with the opium which Coleridge took initially for his gout. That terror may have been felt by Coleridge as pleasurable, although beyond certain limits to be harmful, as Burke had suggested, is indicated in his review of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk: “To trace the nice boundaries, beyond which terror and sympathy are deserted by the pleasurable emotions, – to reach those limits, yet never to pass them, – hic labor, hic opus est [This is the effort, this is the work]” (187). According to Coleridge, it is because The Monk goes beyond the limits, is improbable, and immoral, that it is a “poison,” “pernicious,” having harmful effects on its readers, especially the young and women (188). The view of terrifying novels as potentially harmful also accords with medical concerns that while the nerves of some patients required stimulation, others were overstimulated, and that mass culture – including sensation novels – tended in this way to have pathological effects (see Budge).

Coleridge’s attempt to distance his own work from Gothic novels is associated with the denigration of sensibility around the turn of the century as pathological and effeminate. Robert Miles, following his account of how readers’ nerves were described as strings which in response to ‘sublime events [...] vibrate with “pity and terror”’ (above), goes on to explain how sensibility was increasingly reviled: ‘Where it was a compliment to call someone “nervous” in 1790 (the term suggested one was robustly yet finely strung, in the manner of a well-tuned instrument), by 1810 it had taken on its overtones of being fractiously “highly-strung” (49 & 50). But while sensitive or over-stimulated nerve-strings were increasingly seen to underpin pathological (and feminine/hysterical) conditions, stimulation – within limits – also seemed to retain some medicinal qualities. The understanding that an external stimulus was required for medical disorders, and that mental states like “dejection” could be affected by physiological conditions, was developed both by Burke and in medical literature with which he engaged. Aris Sarafianos has considered how Burke, along with Haller, Brocklesby and other medical empiricists, developed a conception of pain as of therapeutic value, so that by the end of the eighteenth century it was frequently seen as a means of recovery. “Echoing Burke’s earlier propositions,” according to Sarafianos, Brunonianism in particular, named after John Brown’s theory of nervous excitability, “advocated the therapeutic properties of maximizing rather than reducing excitation” (75). Brown’s theory was that every creature has a certain amount of excitability, which is a material substance, and which allows it to live. Life depends on having enough excitability at disposal within one’s organism and on the availability of exciting powers in the external world, necessary as stimulation. Health and disease were seen as the result of either a lack or excess of such excitability. Theories about vitality thus influenced medical treatments including those of Coleridge’s physician Thomas Beddoes, who, in his attempt to apply the Brunonian theory of excitability, had experimented with the medical benefits of air (developing Joseph Priestley’s earlier findings), understood to stimulate the vital forces of life. As Neil Vickers discusses at some length, “Beddoes saw himself as trying to refine out of common air the very essence of the exciting powers” (49). Humphrey Davy, whose early mentor was Beddoes, in turn developed his theory that oxygen combined with light are essential to life (see Ruston 34-7). In the course of his experiments, Davy tried out the effects of the gas nitrous oxide on Coleridge, to see if it was a powerful stimulant. Coleridge responded enthusiastically, reporting after his first inhalation “a highly pleasurable sensation,” and on the third occasion a feeling of “extasy” (Beer 200). Considering the medical context of Burke’s aestheticism, as Sarafianos puts it, “as a materialist inquiry dealing with the bodily reception of external stimuli” (67-8), the wind might thus figure among the airs and gases with which later Brunonians experimented.

The wind in “Dejection” has the “obscurity” or formlessness and power of the sublime. The harp is an image of passivity and trembling submission, while the superior force of the wind is addressed with the kind of “reverence and respect” (101 & 165) which Burke claims is felt for the sublime:

Thou Wind, that ravest without,

 Bare craig, or mountain-tairn, or blasted tree,

Or pine-grove wither woodman never clomb,

Or lonely house, long held the witches’ home,

 Methinks were fitter instruments for thee [...]

 Thou Actor, perfect in all tragic sounds!

Thou mighty Poet, e’en to frenzy bold!

Coleridge, “Dejection” 117, lines 99-109

Unlike “The Aeolian Harp,” in which the harp is the image for the poet, in “Dejection” the wind is described as musician, actor and author. The harp is dispensable; other unstable structures, like a “blasted tree” or “lonely house,” would be “fitter instruments for thee.” The active wind, as opposed to the responsive harp of the earlier poem, becomes the “mighty Poet.” This shift from the passive poet may correspond with Coleridge’s well-documented move away from the associationist philosophy of mind. In Biographia Literaria he went on to argue that Hartley’s theory of the passivity of mental processes had been rejected, and consciousness instead considered by ex-followers “as a tune, the common product of the breeze and the harp: though this again is the mere remotion of one absurdity to make way for another, equally preposterous. For what is harmony but a mode of relation, the very esse [being] of which is percipi [to be perceived]?” (218-9). This understanding of harmony may be in turn seen as a sign of Coleridge’s move toward the Kantian idea of perception, of how the mind with its a priori concepts such as time and causality structures our perception of reality. Harmony and noise do not exist in themselves but are constituted in the act of listening, as “the delicious melodies of Purcell or Cimarosa might be disjointed stammerings to a hearer, whose partition of time is a thousand times subtler than ours” (219). The idea that perception is itself constructive seems to correspond with the notion of the poet’s creative mind. Coleridge’s idea in “Dejection” that “we receive but what we give” (115, line 47), for example, has often been taken by critics to support the argument that for Romantic poets perception was creative rather than receptive (see, for example, Day 54-7). What Coleridge felt he had lost, however, in his state of “dejection,” what Abrams calls his “death-in-life,” (Correspondent Breeze 27 and The Mirror 67) was precisely this mental creativity, his “shaping spirit of Imagination” (116, line 86), rendering him passive and in need of powerful external stimulation. In the earlier verses of “Dejection,” before the build up of the sublime wind, which threatens to overpower the harp’s capacity to produce the regular metre and rhyme that is still evident here, the poet is distant, detached, and still, seeing rather than hearing or feeling:

 All this long eve, so balmy and serene,

Have I been gazing on the western sky,

 And its peculiar tint of yellow green:

And still I gaze—and with how blank an eye!


I see them all [clouds, stars, moon] so excellently fair,

I see, not feel how beautiful they are!

114-5, lines 27-38

The poet’s loss of creative perception is referred to here with the description of the eye as “blank.” Looking outwards and seeing the external world – the colours and shapes of which are described in vivid detail, “the western sky” with its “tint of yellow green,” “those thin clouds above, in flakes and bars” – is not enough. Lacking creative power from within, the poet requires the violent, bodily stimulus of the wind, or the air, as recommended by medical writers from Burke to Beddoes.

The sublime, then, was sought as a means of recovery, of reviving the poet’s capacity for expression. More violently than in “The Aeolian Harp,” the wind forces the passive instrument to ‘speak.’ The resulting sound is not attributed to the harp but to the wind, as we have seen, which confronts the harp’s capacity to organise, or harmonise vibration. The sounds produced by the wind, as well as the wind itself, are sublime. They resemble the sounds which Burke describes as sublime, including the “shouting of multitudes,” and sudden, loud, and “low, tremulous” sounds (123-4):

 [...] groans of trampled men, with smarting wounds—

At once they groan with pain, and shudder with the cold!

But hush! there is a pause of deepest silence!

 And all that noise, as of a rushing crowd,

With groans, and tremulous shudderings—all is over—

 It tells another tale, with sounds less deep and loud! [...]

 ‘Tis of a little child

 Upon the lonesome wild,

Not far from home, but she hath lost her way:

And now moans low in bitter grief and fear,

And now screams loud, and hopes to make her mother hear.

117, lines 111-125

The voices communicate not through language but the texture of sound itself, through the volume, pitch, rhythm, and tremulousness of “groans” and “moans,” shuddering and screaming. In contrast to such sublime sounds, or noises, in “The Aeolian Harp” the gentle action of the breeze on the harp’s strings generates “soft,” “sweet,” “delicious,” harmonious sounds. These correspond with the “soft,” “sweet” and “delicate” qualities of Burke’s beautiful sounds, founded on pleasure (155-6).

The various forms of the sublime, along with sensations more generally, tend of course to have a vibratory effect. When the ear receives sound, the ear-drum and other parts of it vibrate, as Burke explains (168). Like Hartley, he then uses sound to suggest that light is vibratory, and also that certain foods have the “power of putting the nervous papillae of the tongue into a gentle vibratory motion” (180). Bitter tastes, such as salt, are sublime. As opposed to sweetness, salt has “vibratory power” (180). The harp and the poet in “Dejection” thus seem to become increasingly vibratory as the wind builds up toward the climax, in the form not only of sublime sounds but also the palpable vibration of “tremulous shudderings,” which might be seen as the result of intensified vibrations in the nerves. The body vibrates in a kind of palpable scream, the pathological equivalent of which might even be found in the variations of shaking and convulsions frequently reported and classified in contemporary medical literature. Some physicians thought that pain, excessive stimulation or shock could cause such symptoms as trembling, twitching, palpitations, spasms, and convulsions.[14]

The Aeolian harp was distinctive in being played by the wind, rather than a person, as I have mentioned. Another, related way in which it differs from other musical instruments is in being both a stringed instrument (like a guitar) and wind instrument (flute). John Hawkins, one of the commentators on the Aeolian harp (also known as “wind-harp”), whose comments are included in Robert Bloomfield’s “Nature’s Music,” wrote that the harp “astonishes the hearers: for they are not able to perceive from whence the sound proceeds, nor yet what kind of instrument it is, for it resembles neither the sound of a stringed, nor yet of a pneumatic instrument, but partakes of both” (100). In “Dejection,” however, the chaotic, formless force of the wind can be seen to become the dominant feature, threatening to overwhelm the strings’ capacity to harmonise, which in “The Aeolian Harp” is preserved. Unlike “The Aeolian Harp,” in which the gentle breeze leads to gentle pleasures and thoughtful contemplation, in “Dejection” the noise of the wind induces pain and passionate feelings, ranging from “agony” to “delight.” As stringed instruments are traditionally associated with reason and order they have long been seen, in Western cultures at least, as a means of procuring physical and mental health, while wind instruments have historically been connected with the threat of mental or physical derangement.[15] Like other stringed instruments, the harp continued in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to be regarded as having therapeutic value for the physical and mental illnesses caused by disordered nerves, whereas the Aeolian Harp, as both a stringed and wind instrument, was understood to have both soothing and disturbing effects. This instrument can thus be described as having “soothed the pensive melancholy mind,” as noted in the opening paragraph above, in contrast to the description in “Dejection” of its ‘scream / Of agony by torture lengthened out” (lines 97-8). In the case of “Dejection,” however, both effects appear to be experienced at once, as if the exercise provided by sublime kinds of disturbance was both pain and therapy. The therapeutic quality of the wind-harp may derive from the activity of turning, or tuning the disorderly or unpatterned buffetings of the wind into sounds of regular intervals, making sense out of chaos or noise. Should the sublimity of the wind exceed certain limits, however, defeating the harmonising power of the strings, it may have dangerous or harmful effects. James Beattie wrote of a friend who “has been once and again wrought into a feverish fit by the tones of an Aeolian harp” (139).

The Romantic regard for the wind is perhaps epitomised by Percy Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” The hope in the last verse of “Dejection,” that “this storm be but a mountain-birth,” prefigures later ideas of the wind as a force of both destruction and resurrection, pain and rebirth. Like Coleridge, Shelley speaks directly to the invisible, audible wind:

O WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing [...]

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;

Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear! [...]

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:

What if my leaves are falling like its own!

The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone.

Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,

My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!


The violent revival of inner life is a central form of the correspondence between the wind and the poet in the works of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley. M. H. Abrams argues that it is the theological background of the wind’s divine inspiration and powers of rebirth which these writers recover in “versions of an older devotional poetry.” The Romantic wind, according to Abrams, “is remote in kind from the pleasingly horrific storm dear to eighteenth-century connoisseurs of the natural sublime” (Correspondent Breeze 38). The wind can also of course be viewed in a contemporary scientific context, however. Sharon Ruston observes that Shelley’s description of the wind as life-giving shares a preoccupation with the scientific debate of the time about how life began, and about the difference between living and dead matter, while theories about vitality influenced medical treatments, as we have seen. Much like the electricity which animates dead bodies in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the wind which stimulates the harp in the poems by Coleridge and Shelley, both of whom were familiar with such theories and practices, may thus be more than just a healing force—it is a vital energy, generating life itself.[16] While Coleridge came to reject his earlier materialist views of life, as Ruston notes, “instead arguing for a far more conservative notion of a soul, an immaterial mind and the design of an omnipotent God” (25), the wind continued in Shelley’s poetry as a force or energy which could potentially animate matter.[17]

The continued use of the harp as a model for the poetic, creative self in the work of Shelley, Bloomfield and others in the nineteenth century indicates that this instrument, despite the bad reputation theories of sensibility began to get after about 1800, was still the vogue invention for materialising the relationship between outward nature and the inner self. The harp, as both a stringed and wind instrument, provides a way of bridging what Crary has described as a historical disjuncture with the new understanding of sensations as originating in the body rather the external world. As a stringed instrument, the harp provided a model of the nerves as having a constitutive role in perception, and in the production of poetry, as earlier sections of this essay have shown, while as a wind instrument, the harp’s capacity to organise or harmonise external forces or energies may be reduced or even obliterated. Powerful, overwhelming stimuli from the external world, such as the wind, could be experienced as both painful and pleasurable, and seemed to have both detrimental and beneficial effects on bodily and mental health. The sublime force of the wind could painfully excite the mind out of dejection and inspire poetic production (within the limits beyond which it could be harmful), and further, it could become a life-giving energy with the power to reanimate life and consciousness. The Romantic mind – with its inspired thoughts, productive imagination, passionate feelings – is not conceived here as spiritually transcending the material body and world. Rather, the harp became one of the chief emblems of a culture in which new technologies helped to produce and served to demonstrate a mechanised understanding of the materiality of mind in relation to the physical world.